Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Michael Clayton / ***½ (R)

Michael Clayton: George Clooney
Karen Cowder: Tilda Swinton
Arthur Edens: Tom Wilkinson
Barry Grissom: Michael O’Keefe
Marty Bach: Sydney Pollack

Warner Bros. presents a film written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Running time: 119 min. Rated R (for language including sexual dialogue).

As awards season reaches full swing over the next few months, there’s going to be a lot of talk about movies many of you will never see or have never even heard of. “Michael Clayton” will not be one of them. After all, this is the type of movie that generates awards because 1) it contains big-name stars giving powerful performances, and 2) it has the kind of mass appeal that will make it a film everyone can talk about. It will probably grab nominations of some sort for picture and performances. Because of this near-inevitability, I find myself in a strange position as a critic. To give them the benefit of the doubt, I often try to like movies more than they deserve, but this time around I find myself trying not to like this movie.

To be honest, there is very little to find fault with in “Michael Clayton”. Calling it formulaic is the worst I can do. It is a legal thriller that falls in the same mold as “A Civil Action”, “Erin Brockovich”, or “The Rainmaker”. It involves a class action suit filed against a major corporation that has put blue collar workers coming into contact with its product on a daily basis in danger of a health crisis. Unlike those other pictures I mentioned, “Michael Clayton” does not tell its story from the perspective of the plaintiffs or their prosecuting attorneys. Instead we are shown the wheelings and dealings of the corporate defendants and lawyers.

During the deposition of a plaintiff in the suit against agriculture giant U-North, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson, “In the Bedroom”), a senior partner at big time law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, strips down naked in an apparent mental breakdown. The firm brings in their “fixer” Michael Clayton to smooth things over with U-North’s chief legal council Karen Cowder.

As the fixer, Clayton’s loyalties seem to simultaneously lie with everyone and no one. George Clooney (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) plays Clayton almost as if he is disinterested in his position in the firm. For sure, he seems to have gotten the short end of the stick, having once been a trail lawyer, but finding now he has spent almost two decades with the firm as its fixer, never achieving partner, with no one even sure what it is he does for the firm save the senior partners. Like any hero in this type of plot, his life is falling apart as he recovers from a gambling addiction and restaurant venture that failed through no fault of his own.

Within the upper echelon of the firm’s hierarchy, he couldn’t be more respected. He’s referred to as a “miracle worker” and “the best in the business”, although he has to beg for any financial love. For a time, it seems as if Clayton’s approach and his reputation don’t match, but Clooney’s precise take on the character eventually reveals it is Clayton’s quite observation of situations and people, combined with his refusal to react the way others expect, that gives him the power to fix just about any fix.

As Clayton investigates his friend’s breakdown, it becomes a possibility that Edens’s strange behavior may be an act of conscience. Clooney never betrays where Clayton stands on this possibility, which lends credence to both Edens being truly crazy or actually onto something. Although there isn’t much here that hasn’t been explored in other films, rarely is it presented this well.

The exception to the norm lies within the corporate antagonist played by Tilda Swinton (“Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”). Swinton’s portrayal of Cowder adds levels that could never be explored with a more typical male antagonist. In fact, Cowder has been newly appointed to her position by her predecessor, played by a stone-faced Ken Howard (“In Her Shoes”). In her introductory scenes, Cowder is seen rehearsing her answers for an interview about her new position. There is little confidence in her rehearsed answers in the mirror, but during the interview she seems to have gotten it together.

As with Clayton, the film’s approach to Swinton’s character is again indirect. Never is her ability to fulfill the requirements of her position directly questioned, but there is a sense that as a female she might not be up to the task. Howard’s performance as her superior suggests a buried belief that she will fail. Cowder is certainly capable of abandoning any moral obligations she may feel in order to perform her duties; the truly interesting thing is that a man in her role would probably make the same decisions, with an outcome far less interesting.

The three performances by Clooney, Swinton, and Wilkinson are the most likely elements to get any recognition during the awards season and the most deserving. Some reviews have claimed that the thriller element pushed in the advertising campaign is exaggerated, and that “Michael Clayton” is really a character study. I would say this is untrue. It is a thriller, one that takes a uniquely probing look at the prime players on both sides of the field, but a legal thriller none the less in shape and form. It happens to be a very well executed drama that takes on a common formula with a specialized approach. It will be talked about among the best. And while it deserves to be in the conversation, by no means does it deserve to dominate it.

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